Bath, how the Georgian city influenced and inspired Jane Austen
Jane Austen lived in Bath over a period of five years in her twenties. We asked Dr. Gabrielle Malcolm, author of Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen, There’s Something About Darcy, to tell us about the influence the city had on the woman and her writings
Jane Austen’s relationship with Bath was an interesting one. It represents the many different personalities of the place: stimulating, complicated, elegant, fun-loving, and exciting. Her time spent in the city was full of charm and sadness and marked one of the most eventful periods of her young life.
Austen was aged twenty-five and Bath, for the middle-class daughter of a clergyman, could offer the chance of marriage. In 1801, she moved into rented rooms at Sydney Place with her parents and sister, Cassandra. Life close to the Bath Vauxhall Gardens and Sydney Hotel (now the Holburne Museum and its surroundings) with firework displays and music recitals, meant that she was right in the heart of the outdoor social scene for the first four years she lived in the city. She enjoyed the public breakfasts, and might have indulged in their hot coffee, black tea flavoured with arrack and lemon, and a new innovation of the age – sandwiches.
Holburne Museum, image courtesy Visit Bath
It is interesting to remember that at this time in her life Austen had already begun composition of some her major works. Pride and Prejudice, with a working title of ‘First Impressions’, was commenced in 1796. Sense and Sensibility (her first published novel in 1811) was developed as ‘Elinor and Marianne’, starting in 1797. So, whilst she did not publish anything when she lived in Bath, she did take on the influences it offered. These later emerged in her writing, with the city as a backdrop to both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, published posthumously as a three-volume work.
No. 4 Sydney Place, Bath
Austen’s bedroom at the top of No 4 Sydney Place gave her a view up the hill to Camden Place (now Camden Crescent). This beautiful, picturesque hilltop crescent was constructed in 1788, but a landslip only a year later saw nine houses at the eastern end collapse into the valley. The empty space where they once stood is now the site of Hedgemead Park. Austen was able to view this dramatically diminished landmark, that had been conceived to rival the Royal Crescent, on a daily basis.
Camden Place, c.1794
Years later, Camden Place appears in Persuasion as the chosen address of the unrepentant snob, Sir Walter Elliot. This vain, superior man, father of the heroine Anne, considers residence in the crumbling crescent to be the height of fashion. Austen’s tone is typically biting and ironic in the novel: ‘… a lofty, dignified situation, such as becomes a man of consequence …’. From his perch on the hill Sir Walter believed he could look down on his neighbours, but it was a perch already half-collapsed.
Over five years in her twenties living in Bath, Austen had her faculties for observation honed and her wit sharpened. Her writing was partly a product of this background and experience, all of it very mixed. Bath presented her with great excitement and stimulation, as well as tragedy and loss. In January 1805, her father the Reverend George Austen died suddenly. Of course, this went on to influence her relationship with the city with mingled recollections of enjoyment and sadness. George Austen is buried in the crypt of the church of St. Swithin, at the Paragon, the same church in which he had married Cassandra Leigh back in 1764. The precise location of his grave is beneath the present-day ladies’ lavatories. As Jackie Herring, Director of the Jane Austen Festival once said to me: “The Reverend George Austen, supporting women in death as he did in life.”
The Old Theatre, Bath
To understand Bath’s influence on Austen is to understand the frivolity and precariousness of society, its elegance and façade, the gossip and the performance. Austen knew that social propriety could be the beauty mark over the blemish. In an exciting, complex city she was inspired by the proximity to performance, in theatre and society, and observed where they crossed over. She loved to visit the Old Theatre Royal, on Orchard Street, and the stagecraft and comedy of the great playwright Richard Sheridan inspired her. We know, for example, that she acted in home theatricals of his plays when she was a young girl. She was greatly influenced by the 18th century Comedy of Manners and translated some of that wit and drama into her novels. Pride and Prejudice was also a favourite of Sheridan. He recognised brilliance when he read it.
Bath held much to lure Austen and hold her attention as a bustling urban landscape, but it is well known that she also loved to escape the hurly-burly and pollution and head up into the hills for long walks. She regularly strode up to Beechen Cliff and took the pathways that lead along the Avon Valley to Bathford and Bathampton.
Pulteney Bridge, image courtesy Visit Bath
When Austen lived in Bath, the Industrial Revolution was well underway and the River Avon from Bristol to Bath was being converted in sections into what is now one of the longest navigable waterways in Britain, the Kennet and Avon canal. You can cross the section where the entrance of the canal meets the river at Pulteney Bridge. It is possible to follow the canal and see the neo-classical architecture of the bridges and tunnels that take it through the Sydney Gardens. Or follow in Austen’s footsteps closer to home along the Gravel Walk, something of a lover’s lane in Bath that leads from the City Centre up to the Royal Crescent. Whatever you choose to do you know for certain that you are enjoying the same environment that Austen once inhabited.